Poems from the Desert




How to be alone

Three weeks in October

Desert spirituality

Living with the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Attitudes to the Desert fathers

Urban Fathers

Fairacres article

Holy Arnold

Poetry of the Desert

Guthlac prayers

New urban fathers

18 Theses on the Desert Fathers and Mothers

The 'old men' have often found their way into my poetry and it is perhaps in this way that I find myself able to most deeply meditate on them

of the Desert Fathers

They have come, the old men
And pitched a camp in my heart
Finding a dry cave
And a quiet place
They have made a home for good
Here in my heart
They patiently plait ropes and weave baskets
They are in no rush
Their prayers demand no action
Everything is done at the right time
Long ago they learnt the virtues of waiting
They have forgotten how to judge
Even though their eyes see clearly:
They wait and they pray
And one day I will come home
This is probably my favorite poem about the Desert Fathers. It identifies some of the facets of their life that I have found most important: the weaving of baskets which made them economically self-sufficient but also became an important medium for prayer; the centrality for them of Jesus's words "do not judge, that you be not judged" and the complementary ability to discern the hearts of people. But at its heart and in my heart (for the Desert Fathers are about nothing if not the heart) is that ineffable longing to know God as they knew God. Central to this, as also it was to them, is the cell

The Cell

This is my cell
Here I must breathe
Air I cannot choose;
Here I must live
Days I cannot master.
It is the struggle
Like the old monks
But different
More affluent, less harsh
Less solitude, more noise
But the Same Struggle
With demons
Inside and out
And prayer, and work
And the body lived for God

This poem embodies the tension which comes when your heart is captured by the words of people who lived centuries ago in an utterly different world! I cannot re-create the Egyptian desert but can I perhaps find a cell where the work of transformation can happen?


In the wilderness
I must find a cell,
A safe place
Hidden from world-noise
It may only be
A corner
A cranny
A crack
In the shiny surface
Of seductive rationality
But still it hides
The pearl of prayer
No need to be perfect
Only obscure
Off obvious tracks
And free


The purpose of the cell is to find freedom. Very few of us truly desire freedom: that freedom which liberates us entirely from the unstable passions of the heart and enables us to live as fully grown-up human beings. Rationality, as the old atheist David Hume was well aware cannot liberate us. We need to do business with the heart and this is where the Desert Fathers are most significant, for whether they succeeded or not, they knew life is always a matter of hard.


Withdraw to the wilderness
to the high hills
in the time of expectancy
Solitude you find there,
The rhythm of the uncluttered earth.
Gather to your senses
the sensations of your flesh
the sinews of your mind
the soul-sense
Strangely attractive
And you will be drawn back
To the scattering of the multitudes.
The Welsh hills are my Egyptian desert, drawn to them, I have found a distance from the Cosmopolis where I can, perhaps, heal the damage I have done to myself in the enticing, mechanized world of the city. If some healing can be achieved then, maybe, we will find we really do have something to offer to the city which, at least for the time being, is the future of humanity.


I shall retire to the desert
not out of desire
but because of the sheer exhaustion
of any other possibility
I will be driven into the desert
but secretly longing
for what always seemed fantastical
Here I will stumble in the footsteps of Anthony and Syncletica
spend much time trying to pray
and listen intently
to the wisdom of birdsong
I shall learn the secrets of inaction,
discover the modern equivalent of basket-weaving:
a task not far removed
from the discipline of loving my wife
For the desert knows the necessity of community:
our utter interdependence
and that the only meaning of the journey
is to learn to love
After 10 years
we may find a misguided pilgrim
coming to hear from my lips
one drop of wisdom
But I shall disguise myself
as a loitering yokel
and tell him abruptly
to have nothing to do with that old fraud
Or, perhaps, more likely
I will welcome the admiration
and know at that point
that I have achieved nothing


The lure of the desert (however we experience it) is in all of us but, perhaps, we can only go there when we have no alternative. Then we can begin to learn for ourselves the wisdom which became second nature to the 'old men': that we are interdependent, that we need each other, that self-promotion is a sure way to spiritual death and that it is through failure that we grow


There was no choice
no decision
no conversion
The fleeing from the world
came in my body
with anguish
with angst
with wild anger
It flared in skin hostile and taunt
It groaned in muscles tightened trapped
It came... in weariness
in the world-weariness of weak flesh
and I made the leap
not with a mind clipped and clean
not in a heart faint with fear
but here in the gut-self
body and flesh and eyes-weeping

For me the wilderness has been my chronic illness and disability. It has been a wilderness thrust upon me which I have resisted at every point and, yet, occasionally, I find myself being able to embrace it, managing, for a while, able to stop talking and listen to those old men who have made a home in my heart. In particular my way of life is to bear my illness and yet remain thankful in the midst of the frustration and disability. It is a way of life which lacks the heroic struggles of the desert hermit and the practical usefulness of the ways of love, but we must live with what we have.


I love the idea of earth’s solitary places
Lundy, Sable Island, Rona
Rock and sand
Moated by the ocean’s hugeness
I imagine a house built their
Snuggling down into the earth
Like the beehives
Where the monks drank sweetness
Mine would drink energy
From sun and wind and earth,
Welcome a visitor or two on balmy summer days,
But in the wild of winter
Be utterly alone and silent
Frugal and uncomplaining
Seeking back through time to the Old Men:
Arsenius and Poemen and Moses with his old white beard and black, black skin
But I have never been alone here
Though as a child, a friend’s boat would drop us on Tean
And left there, we were masters of the rock and sand and blazing silence of the place;
Fishing shrimp and drinking lemonade.
And on a remote peninsula
My wife would walk and leave me for the day
Alone with the plunging gannets
In the last inhabited place before America
Still, I have never been alone with sea
Perfectly alone on these rocks which God made for solitude
  and wild monks
  and as haven for seekers after the eternal city

There is a romanticism in the desire to withdraw. A romanticism, perhaps, encouraged by the way the modern world exhausts us with its relentless appetite and desire to squeeze every last drop out of life. For me this romanticism has been focused on remote islands, such as the iconic island of Rona which lives alone in the North Atlantic between the Orkneys and the Hebrides. The island is not a genuine option but a fantasy I occasionally allow myself, much more important is the real task of ropemaking.


for Circle Works
They needed to find a way to live
Otherwise how could they be free?
The desert is all very well: space, quiet,
free real estate and no institutions to devour you
But we are no angels; food is necessary
and minimal amounts of ready cash
Prayer does not turn stones into bread
and solitude does not clothe freezing bodies
So these practical men applied themselves:
Burning with a fiery piety, they took
The providential gift of rushes
And learning to twist them into the ropes of their freedom
They found, in this repetitive, hand-blistering work,
A simple way to still the heart and finance their solitude.
So now in our mechanical age
Where such a simple wilderness seems altogether too remote
We seek again that solid interweaving of prayer and work
Which will free us from new demons.


The spirituality of the Desert Fathers is precisely this solid interweaving of the divine and human. They were tough people who were seeking an alternative, but practical way of living. Much of its apparent harshness comes from the harshness of the peasant lives out of which it was born and they were sympathetic to individuals such as Arsenius who had had a more pampered previous life. What we need now, perhaps, is the emergence of an alternative way of living which takes the best aspects of modern life but reshapes them into a spirituality which is practical and challenging, yet also attractive. For there is no doubt that the Desert Fathers became so important because they did in significant ways crystallize the deep desires of their generation. Now we are looking for a new way of life which enables us to step back from a consumerist lifestyle which is hurtling, so we are told, into a paradigm shift in the ecology of the planet which will wreck an awful vengeance on our noisy and rapacious species.


Now withdraw
To the wilderness
Place of silence and stillness
Habitat of saints and angels
and demons
Withdraw now
to the empty place
distant from the babble of the worlds
Withdraw into the wilderness
Now in the silent place
Empty but for the hum of angels’ wings
and demons


It is difficult to capture silence, or rather it is impossible to capture silence: that stillness which can enthrall the heart and which the Desert Fathers sought. It is easy to think of it as a selfish pursuit but in the transfiguring life of Jesus, and the way of Jesus which we read in the Gospels and see lived out by the Saints, it is nothing less than the discovery of the true source of love. And it is this love which can genuinely transform the world. It is a love which has compassion on the weak. It is a love which turns the curiosity of humanity into the search for sustainable solutions to the problems we have created for ourselves. It is a love which demands justice and peace and good government. It is a love which creates and constantly seeks to improve and develop the complexities of community. It is a love which, above all, seeks to transform the human heart.

The Source

Back to the source, back to the source
Always back to the source
To the Old Men
and the little cottage high in the hills
where there is no anger
and no greed
and only life live day by day:
the daily tasks
and breath breathed
and the Young Man on the hills far away
pierced in his heart by the necessity of love.